See an introduction to this series of notes here.
3. Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde; or, how do revolutionary teachers teach? Learning Exchange, Vol. 1, No. 1.
This 2010 article is significant for its focus on the work of the Russian constructivist and “revolutionary scientist”, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky is introduced as an influence on Walter Benjamin who, although providing the initial inspiration for Student as Producer, Neary states that Benjamin’s “pedagogical theory was not fully schematised. In order to develop his approach further it is necessary to explore more deeply into the work on which his own formulations were derived.” 1
Neary argues that Vygotsky’s science was based on Marx’s historical materialist theory of capitalist society.
“Marx insists that all forms of social existence, e.g., identity, consciousness and class, are grounded in the social context out of which they are derived. For Marx the individual is the ‘social individual’, i.e., the form that individuality takes is not separate from the form of society, so that it makes no sense to talk about ‘individuals’ in abstraction from the social world.” (Neary 2010)
Vygotsky understood labour to be
“the fundamental organisational principle for the social and natural world, and is responsible for the consequences that flow from these arrangements, including the development of intellectual thought (Newman and Holzman, 1993). At the same time, it was seen that the barrier to intellectual development lay in the way in which industrial production was organised within the capitalist factory. Vygotsky was interested in how to restore the connection between intellectual and manual labour through the process of education, in ways that would further the development of human intellectuality.” (Neary 2010).
Neary draws on Vygotsky to further argue for the role of the student to be connected to their social context; their relationship with the teacher to be reconfigured so that “the student educates himself… the real secret of education lies in not teaching” (Vygotsky 1997) Intellectual development should “be associated with practical tasks” (Neary 2010) and the lecture format “mirrors the alienating labour process of the capitalist factory.” (Neary 2010)
For Vygotsky, then Benjamin, and most recently Neary, the social context of learning must be understood as its “own process of production” In the production of knowledge, the student should not simply be consuming someone else’s labour but rather actively “involved with the entire process of production of knowing… Knowing and meaning are created, and the student is remade, by reconnecting intellectual and manual labour.” (Neary 2010)
“For Vygotsky, in the factory of the future the labour process takes on a pedagogic function and the student merges with the worker to become: the student-worker; the pedagogic function does not teach the student-worker various skills, but rather enables the student-worker to understand the overall scheme of the production process, within which they will find their own place and meaning, as a process of learning and development. By situating themselves within a pedagogical process, whose meaning and purpose they understand, the production of knowledge is revealed not as something that is already discovered and static ( i.e., dogmatism), but is uncovered as ‘ the dynamic context of its own appearance’ (Vygotsky, 1997).” (Neary 2010)
Out of the social context, the student is transformed “into the subject rather than the object of history” and therefore social history is remade, too. Thus, the point of education is not to create an ‘educated’ individual who meets a set of ‘learning outcomes’, but to critically situate the subjectivity of the individual in “the politics and ethics of the social system out of which the education process is derived … ‘education is not about adaptation to an already existing environment, but the creation of an adult who will look beyond his own environment’. (Vygotsky 1997).” (Neary 2010)
“Vygotsky argues that a progressive educational system must be based on a progressive social context, and any attempt to construct educational ideas in a society within which its social contradictions are not resolved is a ‘utopian dream’ (Vygotsky, 1997). The point is that pedagogy can not be ‘politically indifferent’ and that education follows a basic pattern depending on its dominant social class (Vygotsky, 1997).” (Neary 2010)
Such education is practised through teachers and students collaborating in the process of education. The teacher “guides” the student, who acts as an “investigator” in their own educational process, thereby overcoming the alienation of the traditional forms of received learning.
Drawing on later work by Vygotsky, Neary argues that Student as Producer is, by its very nature, a ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that is,
“not a place at all; it is an activity, an historical unity, the essential socialness of human beings expressed as revolutionary activity (Newman and Holzman 1993). The point of ZPD is to establish a space where students perform beyond themselves so as to make history, not simply knowledge . It is a vision for a new society and a new human being (Newman and Holzman, 1993). In Vygotsky’s ZPD all science is revolutionary science and all teaching is revolutionary teaching: in other words, a pedagogy for the avant- garde.” (Neary 2010)
Despite Vygotsky’s unrealised optimism, Neary reaffirms the “possibility for human intellectual development if the forces of technology and science can be reprogrammed to construct an alternative and sustainable social world within which humanity is the project rather than the resource.” Similar examples are given to those we provided in the 2009 book chapter. A version of Vygotsky’s work has been accepted in the mainstream of educational theory and practice. “The issue now becomes what is the extent to which Vygotsky’s work can be re-radicalised and turned to the purpose of social revolution for which it was intended.” (Neary 2010)
From this, it is clear that the purpose of Student as Producer is nothing less than “social revolution” The production of knowledge is at the heart of the production of science and technology and therefore the reproduction of human social life. The separation of intellectual and manual labour is found in the separation of the student from the processes of research and the separation of the teacher, confined to their subject disciplines, from “the total institutional process of the production of knowledge and meaning.” (Neary 2010) In contrast to this, Student as Producer, while a critique of the modern university, is also articulated as its re-constitution, a collective effort by “the academic community to design an alternative model for the university, as a rehearsal for an alternative social world in which it might subsist.” (Neary 2010)
“By creating alternative models for higher education Student as Producer is experimenting with the history of the idea of university, drawing on the heritage of higher learning. The purpose is to reinvent the contemporary significance of students and the university so as to provide, as Benjamin (1996) might have it, a real time example of the highest metaphysical state of history.” (Neary 2010)
Compared to the original 2009 book chapter and its focus on Humboldt, the 2010 book chapter above drew inspiration from the more contemporary events of 1968 and recent student protests. By contrast, this latter article goes deeper into the history of revolutionary scientific and educational theory to discover and recover the origins of Benjamin’s argument in his essay ‘Author as Producer’, the foundational text for Neary’s Student as Producer project. So far, he has established a genealogy starting with Marx, then Vgotsky, Benjamin and then later Marxist writers such as Debord, Lefebvre and Badiou. In a related conference paper, Neary critiques the ‘productivism’ of Benjamin and Vygotsky through the work of two other Marxist academics, Moishe Postone and John Holloway. Here, I want to briefly summarise the significance of this article, which given the very short life of the journal it was published in, is in danger of being overlooked. The paper underlines the following, which is of relevance to the development of a ‘co-operative university’:
- The basis for transforming institutions of higher education is the transformation of the role of the student. For Vygotsky, the student becomes the student-worker.
- The role of the student is not simply that of becoming a ‘collaborator’, or the learner of skills, but as an active contributor to the labour process of the university (i.e. the production of knowledge), within which they find their own purpose and meaning.
- The division of intellectual and manual labour is overcome through the recognition of education as a form of productive labour itself.
- By revealing the organising principle of knowledge production, the university becomes grounded in the productivity of its students.
- Through the transformation of the student and subsequent transformation of the organising principle of higher education, science and technology can be employed to transform society. The student becomes the subject rather than object of history – they make history – and humanity becomes the project rather than the resource.
- Teaching begins from the student’s experience in a particular social context “so that the student teaches themselves” and are no longer alienated from the production of knowledge. So that students “recognise themselves in a world of their own design.” (Debord)